The week spent here in Mobile at the Senior Bowl is the most valuable piece of the evaluation process for me. This is the last time we get to see players actually play football before the draft arrives in April. It's also unique because NFL coaches are involved in the process for the first time and that changes how teams look at the players. As a result, players move up and down the board based on real demonstrated football skills and knowledge, rather than workouts.
I have been impressed with the Senior Bowl class of 2012 in some regards, but a few significant questions have surfaced as I wrap up my week in Mobile ...
Who is the third quarterback in the draft?
It is a great year to take a quarterback if you have the first or second pick in the draft. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III appear light years ahead of the rest of the draft class. Some speculate that Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill is the third quarterback, but he pulled out of the Senior Bowl for medical reasons, eliminating the opportunity to compare his skills with the quarterbacks who are in Mobile. In my opinion, Arizona's Nick Foles is the top prospect in town this week. At 6-foot-5, 244 pounds, with a strong arm and an over-the-top delivery, he may be the third QB in the draft. Some of the midweek enthusiasm for 28-year old Brandon Weeden will simmer down when his age and the issue of a once-torn labrum are factored into the equation. Last year, the Senior Bowl pushed Jake Locker, Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton up draft boards, so the actual game will be important for this year's QBs. However, right now I don't see that same thing happening with the quarterbacks. NFL head coaches will be leaving Mobile with a cloudy picture of the depth at quarterback.
Where is the next Rob Gronkowski?
If there was any doubt, this year's playoffs have driven home the point that the modern tight end has become one of the biggest offensive weapons on the field. It seems like every offensive-minded coach I speak to down here is looking for the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham (a solid college basketball player who started one college football game at Miami before coming to Mobile as a senior). During the Senior Bowl practices, Graham demonstrated big-play ability and the Saints grabbed him. Gronkowski is simply a beast for the Patriots. So far, we haven't seen a player with the skill level of either of those guys in Mobile this week, but the top tight end here appears to be Michael Egnew from Missouri. At 6-5, 251 pounds, he passes the eyeball test, but he really is a slot player who needs work on playing attached to the tackle in a three-point stance. Maybe the answer to this pressing need is junior Dwayne Allen from Clemson. But as we leave Mobile, coaches are still looking for the elite tight end to build an offense around.
Is there a true "3-technique" defensive tackle in the draft?
There are many defensive philosophies and fronts being implemented in the NFL. The true 4-3 shaded front defenses are all looking for a dynamic defensive tackle known as a "3-technique." The guy they really want can do the things Warren Sapp used to do for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He must have great first step quickness, live in opposing backfields and disrupt offensive blocking schemes. The Senior Bowl defensive tackle class is actually a solid group with a wide variety of players. Washington's Alameda Ta'amu is a perfect 3-4 nose tackle, Josh Chapman (Alabama), Mike Martin (Michigan) and Brandon Thompson (Clemson) will all make a team and play, but none of them make the defensive line coaches feel like they are looking at the next Sapp. Penn State's Devon Still pulled out of Senior Bowl week and it would have been nice to see if he had a chance to be that guy. Right now, defensive coordinators running the 4-3 under/over defense leave without a lot of answers at the 3-technique. One player that did pique the interest of the coaches I spoke with was UConn's Kendall Reyes. Teams will have to do more work on Reyes, but he definitely helped himself in Mobile.
Will teams reach for a 4-3 defensive end?
North Carolina DE Quinton Coples was smart enough to come to the Senior Bowl and demonstrate his tremendous talent. There have been some questions about his attitude, and the interview process will be critical for him. The other elite pass rushers here, like Melvin Ingram, probably belong in a 3-4 defense as an outside linebacker. Coples is 6-5 3/4, 281 pounds, and there simply aren't many quality players who bring those measurables to the table for the 4-3 defense. Virginia's Cam Johnson helped himself this week, but already teams are talking about him as an OLB in a 3-4. As one defensive coordinator said to me Thursday morning, "Try to find a guy with 6-4 height and in the 280-pound range with long arms that can play every down and distance. If you do, he will leave the draft board a lot earlier than he probably should."